Group recommends classrooms, office space for school system, community groups
by Jason Tomassini | Staff Writer | Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2008
A study of the dormant Old Blair Auditorium will explore how the building's auditorium space can serve two Silver Spring schools and how classroom and office space planned for the site can be used by the community. However, significant funding is still needed for the project.
A group of county agencies and nonprofit organizations that have worked on the project recommended to the Montgomery County Council's Education Committee that the 1,200-seat auditorium be renovated into an 800- to 900-seat auditorium with additional classroom and office space for Montgomery County Public Schools or community agencies.
The work group – which includes Montgomery County Public Schools, county agencies and a nonprofit dedicated to finding uses for the building – will now develop a Program of Requirements for the auditorium, which is located on Wayne Drive in Silver Spring.
After the POR is completed, MCPS and the Board of Education will approve an architect to conduct a $25,000 feasibility study to determine cost and how the space will be used. Funding for the study is included in the Board of Education's fiscal 2009 budget and it could be completed next summer.
"We have this empty building and all these needs in the downtown area and something needs to be done to get this building back up to standards," said County Councilwoman Valerie Ervin (D-Dist. 5) of Silver Spring.
The auditorium has been closed since 1999, when Montgomery Blair High School moved to its new location at Colesville Road and University Boulevard. The auditorium is now part of the Silver Spring International Middle School and Sligo Creek Elementary School campuses.
It has 900 seats on the ground level of the auditorium and about 300 "stadium seats" in an area that would be used for classrooms and office space.
Ervin suggested a day care facility or a school-based health clinic be considered in the POR as possible uses for the extra space. The work group also considered adding lecture hall areas instead of classroom and office space or simply upgrading the auditorium as it currently is, options rejected due to high costs or a lack of service to the community.
A $600,000 state bond bill was awarded to Old Blair Auditorium Project Inc. in 2005 and could be used toward renovation costs if the county or private donors match the funds. But the project could cost "quite a bit more" than $1.2 million, requiring additional county funds or even federal funds, said Stuart Moore, president of the Old Blair Auditorium Project Inc.
"I don't consider it highly likely that would work out, but it's something we can pursue," Moore said of pursuing federal funding, citing a cutback on federal earmarks as an obstacle. Moore said his organization has raised about $75,000 for the project.
Given the county's current financial situation, developing a financially viable POR could be difficult, said County Council President Michael J. Knapp (D-Dist. 2) of Germantown.
"Basically we are supposed to go through the Christmas list of the things we'd like to see here," Knapp said. "Then we have others go back to see how much it would actually cost to buy Christmas this year."
One way to pursue funding for the project could be through partnerships with community organizations that need to use the space, said Ginny Gong, director of the county office of Community Use of Public Facilities.
"Maybe with [community groups] that really want regular use of it … in return for a certain amount of use we could explore creative partnerships with community groups," Gong said.